You don’t hear about the insanely powerful but arcane Redistricting Task Force unless there’s been a disaster. And you’ve been hearing about it — because there’s been a disaster.
Four members of this body walked out of a recent meeting and publicly accused their colleagues of taking marching orders from the city’s powers-that-be to craft a map that purposefully comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted.
So, that’s a disaster. And if you believe the disgruntled task force members and the hundreds of attendees who have been packing these never-ending meetings, so is the task force’s work product. Sifting through the wreckage to find the figurative black box comes next, and that may be the task of teams of lawyers. It seems a safe bet to say San Francisco’s controversial new voting lines will be the subject of an injunction request. And, since this is San Francisco after all, by November we may also be voting to undo or supplant our voting lines and alter the way they are drawn.
The coming weeks and months are going to be agonizing. It didn’t need to be this way.
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did we get here?”
This is a difficult question to answer in full. No one can say we’re in a good place, and no one should defend the process that led us here. But why things have turned so disastrously cannot easily be chalked up to any single misstep.
But — again, because this is San Francisco after all — we should start with incompetence. Separate and apart from the accusations that the task force was beset with top-down political pressure and chicanery (and these accusations emanate not just from cranks or loons or Twitter-besotted politicians but, again, from members of the task force itself), the process has been indefensible.
And the pace, until recently, had been sclerotic. While both outside organizations and members of the task force itself agitated late last year to commence drawing lines and showing the public preliminary maps, this action was rebuffed by the task force’s leadership.
The excuse given at the time was that more public input was needed. But it’s hard to see how the ensuing public input was reflected in the map that was produced. Rather, it seems to have been purposefully brushed aside.
“I am on the record in November, January and February calling for us to start mapping,” task force member J. Michelle Pierce told Mission Local. “If you are scared to map, why did you sign up for this body? But the vice-chair and chair” — Ditka Reiner and the Rev. Arnold Townsend, respectively — ”said they needed to take public advisement into account and see what the public needed.”
Pierce sighs: “Where is that in the final map? They were full of shit then, and they are full of shit now.”
Perhaps the task force was making a play for the procrastination Hall of Fame. So it was only painfully recently that the first potential maps were put on display, leading to a classic wait-and-hurry approach and the surreal spectacle of task force members bringing up new iterations of the map and making substantive new edits in last-minute, pre-dawn meetings. To make matters worse, maps that assuaged the assembled neighborhood groups were approved — one by a reassuring, 8-1 vote — only to be rescinded in subsequent 3 a.m. votes after everyone went home and fell asleep.
The process, already strained, ruptured under the pressure of the last week, and has devolved into a minority of task force members accusing the majority of dishonesty. Non-partisan bodies, it should be noted, are not non-political. And there is no clean and easy way to draw up districts; it is a thankless task at best.
The task force has buckled under accusations that undue political pressure has led to the creation of a “class warfare map” which will result in “ethnic suicide.” These accusations from the task force members were as public as they were pointed. And we’ll get to that. But first, let’s focus on that map.
Because, even if it wasn’t the result of political pressure from the city’s moderate establishment, this map looks damn near exactly like the one you’d get if it was.
Drawing up district lines is one of the great conundrums of human existence. There is no way to make everyone happy, and what’s fair is a very subjective measure. Attempts to fix one problem on one side of the city can lead to other problems on the other side; the map is a bit like a game of Jenga, and it collapsed on the task force on multiple occasions.
There is always give-and-take in redistricting. The task force could have, if it so chose, created a moderate-friendly map that still kept together many of the sensitive communities — and renters — vital to city progressives. And, odds are, you would never have heard a thing; there would have been recriminations and grumbling, but not the sort of crashing-and-burning disaster that sparks news stories and legal threats and noisy protests.
Because the map, as it stands, isn’t just moderate-friendly, it’s a moderate fever dream. Perhaps this is why task force member Jeremy Lee excoriated his colleagues by stating, during public comment no less, that “you got greedy, you got sloppy, and fucked up.”
Here’s a synopsis of the map:
In District 1, the addition of Seacliff brings an influx of some of the city’s wealthiest homeowners into the district — also, the left-leaning student population of USF is now split; District 3 takes all of Russian Hill, adding many well-off and white voters to the area; District 4 is set to absorb the conservative-leaning homeowners of Merced Manor and Lakeshore; Dean Preston’s District 5 has been sliced into an odd tank-like shape, losing parts of renter-heavy NoPa, Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley; District 6 loses the Tenderloin; District 9 absorbs many well-off white voters into a dwindling Latino stronghold and District 10 loses the sizable Black population of one side of Potrero Hill while taking on the Portola — weakening the Black vote in Board President Shamann Walton’s district while creating a powerful conservative Asian voting bloc.
“I feel like when we write this final report, if we get to it, y’all are going to have to defend that — absolutely on every line we drew,” Pierce said in the wee hours of the first meeting back after the walkout. “We need to include an equity and access report, because I can guarantee you, on almost every line we drew, we reduced equity and access.”
Whether the map looks the way it does because it was crafted by an invisible hand and pushed through by minions or everything happened to turn out just so is functionally a distinction without a difference. And will be, for the next 10 years, if everything comes to pass.
But accusations of the former have been made, loudly — and by the task force members who were, after all, in the room where it happened.
“Members, oh members. You know who this is,” began Jeremy Lee’s comment at the off-the-rails April 10-11 marathon meeting. “When you go home tonight, I hope you can look at yourself in the mirror and see the truly pathetic shells of people you are. You made your bed now fucking lie in it. Enjoy seeing your political careers burn down in flames because you are absolute fools if you think that this map has any chance of holding up in court.”
At least clerk John Carroll knew who it was; Lee didn’t identify himself, but Carroll thanked “Member Lee” in a chipper voice after that chipper message.
Lee subsequently apologized for his comments, in which he also used a crass fellatio analogy to describe city leaders’ dominance over his colleagues. His apology was thrown back in his face by member Lily Ho: “I don’t take degrading dick-sucking insults from men. And you are not forgiven.”
Pierce didn’t apologize at all, stating on April 11 that she believed every word she’d said one day prior. She accused her colleagues of wasting her time and the community’s time to produce a preordained map: “If you guys were going to be bought and paid for over a petty grudge, by someone else who is not in the room, you should have let me know back in September, so I could sleep,” she said.
It was left unmentioned who was being discussed in the above accusation. But, considering Pierce’s ire over the splitting off of Potrero from District 10, which she likened to “declaring war” on the city’s Black community, it stands to reason she is referencing animus between Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Shamann Walton, who would find himself weakened by the excision of Potrero Hill from District 10.
Member Chema Hernández Gil referred to the redistricting effort as a “sham process,” and Raynell Cooper — who only days earlier had survived a ham-fisted attempt by city progressives to unseat the three Elections Commission appointees to the redistricting task force — said he had been “duped” and “this isn’t the process I signed up for, and it only became clearly apparent to me tonight.”
Hernández Gil, on Tuesday morning, matter-of-factly told his colleagues about what would happen “when we’re being deposed;” legal action is, on whatever grounds, is being treated as a fait accompli.
This promises to be agonizing. Candidates for the Board of Supervisors, declaring in June, will have been required to have resided in their nascent districts for 30 days, so it figures that everything must be wrapped up by mid-May. That’s one hell of a pace, and the political furor could be overwhelming.
The over-the-top and bitter dialogue coming from city progressives, and the very likely legal action, could well obscure whatever legitimate complaints they harbor. Regardless, this is an existential argument: The map, as it stands, would likely hamstring progressive supervisorial chances for the next decade. And, if the means of drawing districts remains unchanged, forever after.
“Let’s not sugarcoat what just happened,” said task force member Chasel Lee after his colleagues’ early-morning walkout. “Let’s be real. Any map we pass at this point may be legally legitimate, but publicly, will not be. That’s just the reality. Let me say it up front.”
That seems about right. And the legal legitimacy, too, will likely be put to the test.
“It’s not going to be over,” predicted Hernández Gil on Tuesday. “I think we are legitimately — and we heard it from several speakers — we’re going to be stuck in legal limbo on this for weeks or months to come. We really, truly are.”